Santa Cruz is my hometown. I was born there, spent most of my childhood and teenage years there, and have been homesick for it for most of the past 20 years. Part of the problem of growing up in a beautiful place is that you can’t truly appreciate how beautiful it is until you’ve lived in places that aren’t beautiful. The Boardwalk of course is a huge part of the life of Santa Cruz. For most of the time I was growing up there we lived on the west side of town, either just off Mission Street or up on the hill near the university, and on days when the wind was just right, the smells of the boardwalk: corn dogs, cotton candy, soda pop, and sea salt, along with the sounds of rumbling roller coasters, screaming passengers, and the barking of the sea lions at the wharf; would permeate the whole neighborhood.
Like any kid, I leapt at any chance to go to the boardwalk. I was too much of a wuss for the roller coasters or the haunted house. The sky glider, the cave train, the Ferris wheel, the merry-go-round, and the Red Baron were more my speed, or, if I was in a particularly daring state of mind, the bumper cars. My boardwalk memories are mostly just an indistinct jumble of good times, but there are a couple incidents that stick out.
For me, as for probably many kids who grew up with the boardwalk, tossing the ring into the clown’s mouth on the merry-go-round was something of a right-of-passage. When I was little, riding the merry-go-round was a reward in and of itself, especially when I got my favorite horse: the black one with the armor. As I got slightly older however, I began to notice how my older friends and relatives would carelessly pluck the rings from the arm projecting from the ceiling as they passed by and fling them at the clown’s mouth. Being too small and uncoordinated, I became jealous and fantasized about he day when I’d be able to do the same, and as the thought grew in intensity, I imagined that if I were able to actually land a ring into the clown’s mouth, I would be granted a prize of fabulous riches beyond the wildest imagination, setting me up for life and making me a legend throughout the land. Truth be told, I still feel a tinge of pride when I remember the first time I was able to grab a ring and toss it. After a few visits, a magical day came when I finally landed a ring in the clown’s mouth, causing his eyes to flash. I couldn’t believe it: like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, I’d finally passed the test! Then a worry dawned: would the staff who were responsible for bestowing the great wealth on the winner know who’s ring it was that went in? I excitedly told my parents when I got off, but to my frustration, they seemed not to grasp the gravity of the situation. I told the staff I got the ring in the clown’s mouth, and they responded with something like “oh, okay,” or “good for you”. That was it. the prize for landing a ring in the clown’s mouth at the merry-go-round is to see the clown’s eyes light up and to live for ever after with the knowledge that however little else you accomplish in your life, on your dying day you can still boast that you landed a ring in the clown’s mouth at the merry-go-round.
Another memorable event happened probably around 1982 when I was in first or second grade at Westlake School. For some reason that I can’t remember, our whole class received free unlimited-ride arm-bands for the coming Saturday evening, perhaps along with complimentary pizza. Anyway, we went to the boardwalk, got our arm-bands, heard a lecture from someone who told us that if any time we’d had enough of a ride and needed off, we needed to raise our armband in the air, and then we were off. I partook of everything, wearing my very patient mother out as she tagged along with me over the course of the evening, but at that time the big thing for me was the bumper cars. after gorging on pizza, I took three or four rounds of the bumper car course before mom persuaded me to let other kids have a chance. I went on the sky ride, the cave train, the merry-go-round, the little car roundabout, the Ferris wheel and all that, but then it was back to the bumper cars for I don’t know how many more rounds. As enthusiastic as I was when I started, after a few rounds I started to feel punchy and dizzy, but of course I couldn’t stop. Eventually my mother noticed my flushed complexion, drooping eyes, failing reflexes, and swaying head as the other cars hit me and bounced me around, and decided it was enough. Of course I was upset and put up a small fight, but inside I was also relieved as she dragged me off to the car to go home.
The third incident that springs to mind happened during my teens around 1990, maybe as late as 1992. My father was in town visiting along with my stepmother and young half-sister, and took us all to the boardwalk. Dad was a lifelong career merchant seaman, and he had a wry sense of humor and a keen sense for the absurd. This was shortly after the Neptune’s Kingdom golf course had opened up in the old plunge space. Eying the name above the door and the gaudy nautical decor, dad walked up to the entrance, grasped the door handle, turned to us with a look as serious as death, and, announced gravely, “Family,…welcome to MY kingdom” as he slowly and dramatically pulled the door open.
Anyway, that’s it. As I said, I miss Santa Cruz, and, like a salmon at spawning time, every time I have enough spare time to leave home for a few days, I feel the siren song summoning me back towards Highway 17 and all the beauty and wonders that lay just beyond it.